Saturday, March 26, 2016

Salvation History: "Follow the Drinking Gourd"

[Tonight at University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, I'll be telling one of the Easter Vigil stories. The part I'll be doing is about the salvation story in Exodus, and the specific text is Exodus 4, about the way an "unexpected leader" -- Moses -- was encouraged to act. I adapted the text to tell the story in terms of the way leaders came forward against slavery in the US . . . . ]

In 1849, Harriet Tubman was a 27 year old slave in the state of Maryland - on the Eastern Shore, in the area just south of the Choptank River.

We now know a little bit about what Harriet was going through in that year, and the most important thing is that she had come to a conclusion: "There's one of two things I have a right to. One is liberty; the other is death."

The only question in Harriet's mind was -- which was it gonna be?

We don't know what went on in Harriet's mind in those days when she was still a slave.  In my imagination, it was something like this . . . .

"Flying Geese" quilt pattern

As 27-year-old Harriet Tubman stood pondering one day, hanging out the old quilts that she had been washing, and lost in thought, she hummed a song.  [She hums "Follow the Drinking Gourd"]

An old man who worked on the farm, not a slave, but a hired hand, and a friend she could trust, came along. "Harriet, what are you so lost in thought about?" he said.

"Joe," she said, "I don't know what to do. I think I've gotta make a break for it. But I don't know if I can do it. I mean -- if God was gonna lead me to freedom, like His people he took out of Egypt, there'd be some, I don't know, some signs, or miracles, or . . . ."

"From the way you're talkin', sounds like you've gotten your first sign already," he said.

"North Star" quilt pattern
"Joe, I wouldn't even know how to start."

"Harriet," said Joe, "what's that I heard you humming?"

"Oh," she said, "it's just that old song you taught me, the one whose words don't make any sense."

"How does it go?" said Joe.

[SHE SINGS -- "Follow the drinking gourd, Follow the drinking gourd, for the old man's waiting for to carry you to freedom, follow the drinking gourd."]

"I think you've been carrying around what you need with you all along," said Joe. "The drinking gourd is the Big Dipper, and it points the way north."

[SHE SINGS AGAIN -- "Follow the drinking gourd, Follow the drinking gourd, for the old man's waiting for to carry you to freedom, follow the drinking gourd."]

She looked at Joe.  "I don't know," she said. "How will I survive? I won't even make it through one night . . . . "

"What's that you're hanging up?" he said.

"Just an old quilt - just a jumble of old pieces of cloth."

"Remember to take it with you. That jumble of old pieces of cloth will keep you warm at night."

"Joe," she said, "the worst part of it is: what about my family? How can I go without them?"

"Log Cabin" quilt pattern
"You won't be going without them," said Joe. "You'll be going AHEAD of them. There's a difference. Your real job is learn the way, and then come lead them to freedom."

"All by myself??" she said.

Joe reassured her: "How does that song go again?"

[SHE SINGS AGAIN -- "Follow the drinking gourd, Follow the drinking gourd, for the old man's waiting for to carry you to freedom, follow the drinking gourd."]

"So get going. I'll be right there with you."

"Alright, Joe, alright." (resigned)

"I'll meet you in the morning," she intoned, "I'm bound for the promised land."

Harriet Tubman escaped to Pennsylvania. She returned to Maryland to help others escape, and over the years she led so many individuals from slavery that people gave her a special nickname. Her nickname was "Moses."

You can read about Harriet Tubman on Wikipedia to see the origin of some of the references in the imagined conversation above.

Listen to Richie Havens sing "Follow the Drinking Gourd":

I first learned about the drinking gourd song when I read and performed the picture book version of "Follow the Drinking Gourd" (with story and pictures by Jeannette Winter) over 20 years ago for my son's first grade class.  Here's a reading of the Winter's book:

And here's an adaptation of "Follow the Drinking Gourd" that's unforgettable - The Ishmel Sisters, arranged by Darnell Ishmel, with poetry by George L. Davis, II:

The quilt designs that accompany this post are so-called "Underground Railroad" quilt patches. There is abundant information about the patches on the Internet, though historians have come to doubt their authenticity. I have included them to remind us that secret communications systems, to the degree they existed, were by their very nature obscure and hard for outsiders to decipher. There is so much to this story: we need to open ourselves to possibilities and imagination and myth in order to continue to grasp further aspects of it.

Related posts

What would Christians think if someone proposed carving out a slice of their Sunday services to worship the God of Entombment? Wouldn't they think that was absurd? After all, if Christianity is anything, isn't it the religion of "UN-entombment"?

(See When is Christianity Going Back to Being the Religion of "UN-entombment"?)

For the next three months, people will be talking about the film 12 Years a Slave and its Oscar prospects. And well they should. The film is about the experiences of the free man, Solomon Northrup, who was seized and enslaved for twelve years, and it may be the best thing ever to come along for enabling us to confront the true meaning of our history of oppression and racism in America. But it's not just about history. 

(See 12 Years a Detainee)

I think they are sending a message to their adherents: "We're in a struggle. Not everyone is with us -- yet. But we know what we stand for. And we're not alone!"

(See Shen Yun: Performance Posters as Resistance Art )